Just after I graduated from college, I attended a hip hop concert. This was not my first time attending a concert, but it was the first time I actually observed the diversity in the crowd. Let me set the stage. Common performed that night at the N-Club, which was a small venue. As more and more people piled into the club, I started noticing the diversity of the crowd. This was surprising to me because Common, at that time, was still more of an underground artist. This was before his theatrical exploits, and before he became a household name. It was at this moment that I really began to appreciate the power of good music. Good music unites people from different religions, races, socioeconomic backgrounds and many other categories. Although this was my first “woke” moment as it relates to music and race, it certainly was not my last.
Maybe eight years later, I had a similar experience. Only this time, I was in Washington, D.C. There were about seven of us who planned to go out this particular night. I was new to D.C., so I had no idea what to expect at the club. Mainly, I had two questions for my boy: (1) what is the dress code; and (2) what kind of music do they play? Knowing the vibe for the night is always important to me. If the club only plays house music, I have to prepare myself for that kind of vibe. In this case, the club was new, so nobody in our group had any first-hand experience.
When we finally arrived at the club, I noticed it was an upscale club, which usually means the music will be super weak. To get the evening started properly, we went to the bar to get a few rounds of drinks flowing. All the while, I listened to the house music the DJ was spinning (I felt myself turning into the Hulk because I hate house music). I remember thinking: “We should have just went to a hole-in-the-wall type of spot that would have played hip hop music.” Then, for some reason, I looked towards the back of the club. I cannot remember if I was looking for a restroom, or if something or someone captured my attention. Either way, I saw a room in the back of the club labeled “Hip Hop Room.”
Of course, I made it my business to see what the room had to offer. When I walked into the room, I felt right at home. It was almost like this room was a separate club inside the bigger club. There were all types of people in this room from all walks of life. It kind of blew my mind because North Carolina is by no means a diverse state. Everybody was dancing and reciting lyrics. People had the look in their eyes that projected: “I am here for the culture.” During the few hours I spent in this club, I did not spend a lot of time thinking about the diversity of the crowd. But, when I woke up the following morning, I reflected on the experience. I knew that despite the clear differences between the people in the room, one thing made us brothers and sisters for the night: Music (specifically, hip hop).
For many people, music truly is a safe haven. I learned my love of music from my dad who always listened to soul music when I was growing up. He could vividly remember where he was in life when a song or album was released. Music is a space where you can become lost in a memory. A great song can evoke emotions such as love, lust, happiness, fear, sadness, or many other emotions. You can listen to an upbeat song and actually start to feel more energetic. Or, you can listen to a slow-paced song and feel lazy, sleepy, or even sad. There are some songs that actually are unofficial signals of a season or a holiday. Let’s be honest: has summer truly arrived if you have not heard “Summertime” by Will Smith? Or, is it Christmas if you have not heard “Silent Night” by the Temptations?
It is pretty clear that music is powerful and that it helps connect people. But, can music transcend race? I have always believed people—regardless of race—have far more things in common than not. Indeed, I believe racism and bigotry are learned behaviors. Because we are more alike than not, it reasonably follows that the same music that moves me can also move a Japanese man in California, or a 60-year old White woman from Idaho. Although hip hop was clearly founded by Black folks, its biggest consumers are White folks. If this fact does not underscore the power of music, I am not sure you can be persuaded.
Do I think music is the key to world peace? No. Do I think music can solve the race relations issues we experience in this country? Surely not. I am a realist, so I know that the racial issues we have in this country are deep and complex. There are no easy answers to these problems, but we can at least enjoy the moments when we forget about race and lose ourselves in the music. This is the beauty of music and this is one of the many reasons I love it so much.